Preview: Fuji Rock & Summer Sonic, 2009

Summer Sonic to make some noise

Largely inspired by English role models, the Japanese Summer music festival season has pretty much settled into its present form of two big international rock festivals (Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic), complemented by a large showcase purely for local talent (Rock in Japan Fes), and a number of smaller festivals designed to serve remoter regions like Hokkaido (Rising Sun Rock Festival in Ezo) or specific music genres like Jazz and Raggae (Yokohama Reggae Sai).

While the rural-based Fuji Rock festival, now in its 12th year, was inspired by England's Glastonbury, its urban-based competitor Summer Sonic echoes England's Reading festival. Udo Artists' attempt a few years ago to set up a third major international festival, dedicated to hard rock and metal, modeled on the Monsters of Rock/ Download Festival in Northern England, failed to establish itself with the public (perhaps long hair and leather don't quite fit Japan's humid Summer weather).

Although both the big Summer festivals give off quite different vibes, there has long been little to choose between them in terms of big name appeal and musical quality. But that could be changing this year with the balance of power swinging towards Sonic.

Fuji has some impressive headliners, like Britpop rock legends Oasis, enjoying a resurgence in popularity recently (Best British Band at the 2009 NME awards), and Franz Ferdinand, the neo-new-wave rockers whose music is now taking a more dancey direction. But further down the running order, things look patchy, with a collection of has-beens (Booker T, Public Enemy, Patti Smith, etc.), and relative unknowns.

Among the better acts are synthpop rockers the Killers, pop punkers Fall Out Boy, trip hop duo Royskopp, and the harmonic pop of Trashcan Sinatras. These acts, along with local stalwarts, such as Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Soul Flower Union, and Guitar Wolf, should do enough to stop Fuji Rock turning into just a mushroom picking and marshmallow roasting session.

But while Fuji is on course to become a lower-key event, Sonic continues to increase its big name pulling power. Following last year's impressive line-up, which included the Sex Pistols, Verve, Coldplay, and the Prodigy, this year's Sonic sees some equally big names and plenty of strength in depth, putting Fuji Rock into the summer shade.

Few names are bigger right now in music than R&B diva Beyonce, who is guaranteed to put on a good show at the two alternate Tokyo and Osaka shows. But the key to Sonic's success is that even if you don't care for Ms. Knowles' redoubtable booty shaking and soaring vocal scales, then good alternatives, like space rockers Flaming Lips or gypsy punks Gogol Bordello are just a short stroll away, with six stages all in the vicinity.

Sonic's supermarket approach – plenty of variety within easy reach – is of course much less soulful than Fuji's annual mountain pilgrimage, but seems to be giving the paying punters what they want. Among the other big names, there is plenty of diversity from the rap rock of Linkin Park and the industrial metal of Nine Inch Nails, to the psychedelic pop of the Klaxons and the effervescent disco of Lady Gaga, via the beefed-up pub rock of Elvis Costello and the ska/ new-wave sound of the Specials, specially reformed for a 30th anniversary tour.

Sonic also seems to be presenting more bands that are bubbling under or threatening to make a breakthrough, such as shoegazer revivalists The Horrors, Australia's power pop darlings The Veronicas, and the much talked about Little Boots, who made a name for herself with home-made YouTube videos, featuring electro versions of pop hits played on an experimental Japanese electronic instrument (the Tenori-On), before releasing her debut album Hands this year.

While Summer Sonic eclipses Fuji Rock, a real eclipse of the Sun is also providing the inspiration for one of this Summer's most innovative music festivals – the Total Solar Eclipse Music Festival. To be held over nine days (16th – 24th July) on Amami Oshima Island, halfway between Okinawa and Kagoshima, the festival is built around what is scheduled to be the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century, due on the 22nd of July. Against the backdrop of this celestial event, the festival will offer a mix of techno, trance, house, and chill out, as well as traditional Amami island music.

International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
19th June, 2009
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